Hans Skalagard was still a lad when, in 1937, he took to the frigid seas as a deck apprentice aboard a four-masted, square-rigged Nordic sailing ship.
The sinewy and genial native of the Faroe Islands, a collection of rocky specks out between Norway and Greenland, transitioned to internally powered vessels and throughout World War II and for two decades beyond traversed the world as a merchant mariner.
Three times during the war, ships were sunk from beneath him by German submarines. He never got over the resentment that he and the war’s other civilian seaman were not granted the same benefits as the Navy sailors and other GIs alongside whom they worked and often were injured or killed.
Were there a lull in his duties on cargo ships, Skalagard would find a place to paint. He portrayed what he loved: history’s most majestic, storied, sea-plowing ships.
A descendant of Vikings, Skalagard became a renowned and proliferate maritime artist. From from the mid-1960s to mid-1990s he operated a gallery in Carmel with his late wife, Mignon.
The couple semi-retired to Petaluma in 1997. Early each morning, Hans Skalagard went to work painting small to enormous, exactingly accurate images of great sailing vessels.
He became too frail to paint only three weeks before he died on March 3 at the age of 93.
The old sailor said in 2010 that his art grew from his own experiences as a seafarer and from his reverence for the great creations of wood and steel that allowed mankind to explore the planet and then to conduct indispensable trade.
“Every piece of ground was discovered by sailing ships,” he effused in an interview with The Press Democrat. “The square-rigger ruled the earth for 600 years.”
Even today, he continued, “This country could not last for two months without (the goods moved by) ships.”
Skalagard’s paintings of actual sailing vessels — among them barques, Viking longships, galleons, clippers, frigates, lumber schooners, Down Easters and American Cup yachts — covered the walls of his little, country house in Petaluma. They hang also at maritime schools, museums and galleries around the world, and in the homes of admirals and collectors.
Though largely self-taught, Skalagard studied for a time at the Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen and with painter and illustrator Anton Otto Fischer, during WWII the artist laureate of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Skalagard received many awards for his work and in 2013 was inducted into California’s Scandinavian American Hall of Fame. He joined the likes of Olympic skater Sonja Henie, football coach Knute Rockne, entertainer Victor Borge and “Father of the Green Revolution” Norman Borlaug.
The gentle ex-seaman doted over his effervescent wife, the former Mignon Diana Haack, and he lost a measure of his verve when she died at their home early in 2015.
They’d married in San Francisco in 1955. The bride lived there and the groom was sojourning between cargo-ship voyages. Not long after their wedding, Hans Skalagard recited his oath as a new American citizen.
“My first 10 years of marriage, I was gone eight-and-a-half years at sea,” he recalled in 2010. When he retired as a seafarer in 1968, he’d served on more than 50 ships.
When he disembarked for the last time nearly 50 years ago, his wife had already spotted and rented an empty storefront in Carmel that she deemed to be perfect. She transformed it into Skalagards’ Square-Rigger Art Gallery.
It carried pieces from several artists until Mignon Skalagard decided it would be better to focus entirely on her husband’s large and growing body of paintings of wave-swept, magnificent ships.
The two of them ran the gallery for 33 years. Hans Skalagard from time to time produced a one-man show; over the course of his life he appeared in more than 80.
Both Skalagard and his wife were in their 70s when they closed the gallery in 1997 and quit Carmel for a slower-paced life in rural Petaluma. Hans Skalagard started every day at the easel.
He declared in the 2010 interview, “The ships are my life and they’ll continue to be until there is no more life.
“When they finish with me, they’ll throw me back out to sea.”
His daughter, Karen Sikes of Petaluma, said she and her three daughters and six grandchildren will indeed scatter his ashes in the Pacific.
“He made us promise,” she said.
There will be a private celebration of the life of the sailor and artist later this spring.